What will adulthood be like for Generation Z?

By Amanda Dunn
The Age
June 13, 2015
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For Mei Griffin, there have been two great benefits to turning 18. The first is the right to vote, which she hasn’t yet exercised but is looking forward to – she is especially keen to her say on marriage equality. The second was gaining her driver’s licence and, better still, having her own car.

Griffin is the youngest in her friendship group – the last to reach that golden age when all the restrictions of childhood fall away but the full responsibilities of adulthood can be kept at bay for a few more years.

“I feel like it was because everyone else had already turned 18 and I was still the one who was 17 and couldn’t go out anywhere, had to stay home and still was the kid of the group,” she says. “So when I turned 18 it was quite a relief.”

In many ways, Griffin is a young woman with the world at her feet. She grew up and still lives in Preston with her mum, dad and younger sister. Despite her protestations as a child, she was raised to be bilingual, fluent in her mother’s native Mandarin and particularly in the Shanghai dialect. She is in the middle of a gap year that will probably stretch to two, working a couple of jobs and earning as much money as she can to travel before she knuckles down to study paramedicine at the Australian Catholic University. She still lives at home and is acutely aware that at 18, she is straddling that line between adulthood and childhood; between being taken more seriously in the wider world, now that school is behind her, but still having dinner laid out on the table every night.

Her friend Michael Luxford feels that pushmi-pullyu of reaching adulthood too. As he explains it, being 18 is that strange, exciting halfway house where he can start to pursue a career – he is studying international relations at RMIT – but lives at home. He doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do with his life yet, he just knows that he wants to study and travel. He is optimistic about the future, and his role in it: “I can’t wait for what the future holds,” he says.

Luxford and Griffin are part of the next generation of young adults: at the older end of the so-called “generation Z”, they have grown up in a digitised world, as familiar with keyboards and screens as their parents were with vinyl and pen friends. They are coming of age at a time of mixed fortunes for young Australians: youth unemployment, at 13.5 per cent, is more than double the general unemployment rate of 6 per cent. Tertiary education is more sought-after and more expensive than ever before. Housing has become so expensive, in Sydney and Melbourne in particular, that many may be unlikely to realise the dream of home ownership. As social analyst Mark McCrindle points out, they are destined to be restless adults, changing jobs, even careers, and houses many times in their lives.

Not that it’s all bad, of course. Their technological savvy and facility with social media has made them powerful: they are “creators”, not just consumers, and their nous is sought-after. Once they get into that job market, though, competition is fierce: McCrindle’s projection is that, for generation Z, one in two will eventually have a university degree, compared with one in three for generation Y and one in four for generation X.

Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in social and political sciences at Melbourne University, says one of the issues facing young people is that the job market has become skewed in that “a whole lot of jobs that didn’t need tertiary qualifications now need them”. This is exacerbated by the difficulty for young people in finding a job, which encourages further study and inevitably delays financial independence.

So “while there is absolutely an argument to be had about whether universities are graduating too many students and whether all these employers that use tertiary qualifications as part of key selection criteria for jobs actually need university graduates, given the current labour market, it would be foolish for a student with the means and ability … not to go to university if they aspire to one of these jobs that demands it,” Rosewarne says.

Megan Galvin knows from bitter experience just how hard it is for a young person to find a job. She has taken a gap year, deferring her place in a media and communications degree at RMIT to work and travel. She found it extremely difficult to find work, and she wasn’t fussy about what she would do: “I got so desperate I would do anything,” she says.

Finally, after a string of knock-backs for jobs in hospitality and retail, she found work in a hotel one day a week, and is still looking for more.

Galvin lives at home with her parents and older brother (her sister, 11 years older, has moved out), and is still trying to decide the direction her life may take. She would love to move out and live independently, but it’s beyond her means.

It has to happen eventually, of course, but “there’s a high chance that there’s going to be days when I’m not going to be afford to eat that much food, and I just expect that that’s going to be a part of my life, but I hope that it’s going to get better.”

George Patton, professor of adolescent health research at Melbourne University, says this is not a particularly easy time to be coming of age. There are two major health problems for generation Z – obesity and mental health – that will have huge implications for service provision and quality of life. In addition, chronic physical illness, estimated to afflict one in five young people, has been neglected in this age group, Patton says, partly because children are surviving diseases that once carried a grim prognosis, such as cystic fibrosis and cancer. Where once infectious disease was the biggest health issue, now chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, disability from survival from cancer and musculoskeletal problems have come to the fore.

“Proportionally it’s bigger and probably in real terms it is bigger because some of these (conditions) have actually become a lot commoner,” he says.

In addition, adolescence itself – which in historical terms is a relatively new phenomenon as a distinct identity – has become extended, in that careers, marriage and having children are happening later in life and more young people are living at home into their 20s and even 30s.

This is something of a double-edged sword: on the one hand, this is “an age of opportunity unlike any other”, Patton says, but on the other young people can be slow to take up full adulthood: “Having a sense of one’s own agency and capacity to deal with life is one that you have living away from your parents.”

McCrindle – whose business is analysing generational trends and forecasts – says generation Z is characterised by five key terms. They are global,” through the possibilities of technology, and through pop culture -–movies, music, brands and language changes make their way around the world more quickly and thoroughly than ever before. They are “digital,” thanks to the the devices through which they live their lives. This generation is distinctly “social” because it gets a great deal of information not from experts but from peers, largely through social media. They are highly “mobile” in the fluidity of their work and housing. And they are uniquely “visual,: in terms of how they process their information: YouTube is their search engine of choice, because “they don’t want to read an article about something, they want to watch a video about something.”

One of the key, interesting shifts in this generation is not only the nature of the work, but their attitude to it, which has changed vastly even from a generation ago.

“The mindset was you get a job and you keep the job. You didn’t have to enjoy the job, that’s why it’s called ‘work’,” McCrindle says. “But now there is this extra expectation added to the job contract, and that is not only do I put in the work for the pay, but I need to enjoy it and there needs to be some clear opportunities for me. And I don’t just want a job that offers stability and security, I want a job that offers the ability to make a difference, to have an impact, to show some leadership and to shape things, even from an earlier age.”

And this is a good thing, says Peter McDonald, professor of demography at the Australian National University – people are more concerned now with what they are actually doing for a living instead of just how much money they earn, though no doubt that is still important too. The opportunities ahead of them are promising: the variety of jobs has increased, bringing with it levels of specialisation and opportunities to retrain or return to study. And yes, people will have more jobs and probably more careers too. “The opportunity to do that has opened up much more than in the past,” McDonald says.

Maya Del Rio Reddan is another young adult who has chosen to take a gap year to work and travel before taking up an arts degree at Melbourne University. She lives at home in Sunbury, and used the money she earned working on a farm earlier this year to travel to France and Italy. She is now in Argentina undertaking an internship with a human rights organisation.

Travelling alone was a significant time in her life, she says, “in that transition between being a child and being an adult.” Del Rio Reddan happily admits to spending a lot of time on social media, because it’s a great way for her to keep in touch.

“I think there’s something a little bit addictive about constantly being connected and being able to share your life and share things with friends,” she says. “I think especially when you’re 18 you’re not as reliant on your family, your parents. Everything becomes about your friends.”

She also likes to have a good time away from her phone. “When you’re 18 it is the perfect time to just go out and party and yeah, drink too much but you’re with your friends and there’s no judgment, you’re just here to have a good time,” she says. “I know this is a bit shallow, but in the future I worry that I won’t party as much. I worry that I won’t be able to go out and just get loose and dance and lose myself.”

While other 18-year-olds are figuring out what they want to do with their lives, Slone Sudiro is firmly focused on his dream of becoming an actor. He travels for one and half hours each way from his Dandenong home to his classes at the Victorian College of the Arts every day. He knows the career path he has chosen is a notoriously difficult one, so he doesn’t worry too much about the future, except to approach it with a general sense of optimism. “Especially with something like acting, if you think you’re not going to make it, or you think you’re not going to do well, then you just won’t. So optimism is a big part of my life,” he says. “There’s not much room for thinking less of yourself.”

He’s not worried about buying houses as much as he is about playing music – piano, guitar and drums – and travelling. His father is Indonesian and Sudiro has visited that country several times; now he has the bug. “Just that whole idea of getting away from the life you know appeals to me.”

Mei Griffin would also like to travel, which is part of the reason she’s working now in her gap year. She likes the idea of buying a home one day, but knows how difficult that might be.

“I’ve always wanted to move out and do my own thing, but finding a home is going to be so expensive,” she says. “And if I’ve going to study and drive and work and wanting to travel in between, then where’s all that money going to come from?”

Despite that, she says she is optimistic about the world. “It doesn’t look awfully happy, but I can’t wait to see what we’ll make of it.”

For Maya Del Rio Reddan, who has already had such a rich gap year, the world is also an exciting place. Travelling on her own has made her feel like a real adult, and fuelled her ambition to make the most of her life and the opportunities presented to her. “That sense of independence really does make me feel happy and very optimistic,” she says. “That may change, but right now I feel like – to be cheesy – anything’s possible”

Talkin’ about their generation

Generation Z- aged 6-20

Unemployment rate for 15-24 year olds (at May 2015): 13.5 per cent (more than twice the general unemployment rate of 6 per cent)

University degrees: gen X- 1 in 4; gen Y- 1 in 3; gen Z- 1 in 2

Generation Z will have an average of 17 jobs, 5 careers and 15 homes in their lifetimes

In 1976, around 65% of young adults (18-34) lived with a partner, and 74% of these had children. In 2011, around 42% of young adults lived with a partner, and of these only around half (52%) had children.